Tales of the world episode 48 – The First World War or the importance of finding a name

2014 is well underway, engulfed in its own scoops, tragedies and political controversies. Unlike other years, events will happen in light of a very special lens: the fact that in 2014 we commemorate 100 years since the start of the First World War, a war that, as peoples, we have come to see as ushering both the end and the beginning of an era.

The end of the long 19th century, some have said, and the beginning of our rampant age of hypermodernity. Throughout the year, and probably in the next ones as well, let us not forget this war lasted 4 years, Tales of the world will look to retrieve the twists and turns that slip under the radar of commemorations and analyses, there where humanity and its quirks are outdone by ideology and grand schemes.

Faithful to this form, I’d like to start this series of podcasts by wondering around the very idea of its name: the First World War… I never even questioned its title until I started to research the topic for this podcast. Did you know this expression comes from an article in Time magazine of 1939, when the world was on its way for yet another bloody conflict? It is, as one might say, an appellation d’origine contrôlée from the United States of America. Until then, wars, even when they involved many of the actors that participated in this one and affected quite as many territories, were not called world wars. They characteristically bore the names of the issues and sometimes countries that ignited them: the war of Spanish succession, the seven years war, the thirty years war, the Napoleonic wars. Sometimes countries would call them according to their own interest and involvement. They sound provincial in comparison. Caricaturing, some squirmishes in comparison to the First World War.  It was US journalists writing about war machines in the 1914-1918-conflict who coined a term that eventually, took history books by storm, right down to our days. Even the English and the French, with their The war to end all wars/ la der des ders had to bow to this global and globalising term. By the way, we rarely care to know what the Germans, the Italians or the smaller or further countries called it… It is indeed, an extremely adequate expression, as cautioned by its longevity and success, made up by observant minds; but it is also a powerful instance of how the very reading of history shifted not only with the power shift to the US, but towards a totalising vision of history.

The First World War… a useful pit stop in the race of commemorating historical dates. Behind the luminous billboard we find, though, all the different names it was called by those who drew hope and despair from it: European war, the great war, the war of nations, which recall the uniqueness of each participant’s involvement. Let us not think there’s nothing in a name, but a more or less useful recollection of facts. Names are never neutral, they have a history and an agenda. If the current debate around the first world war ongoing now in the UK, in which conservatives, labour, academics are pitted against each other along ideological lines is anything to go by, there are lessons to learn from it still, as its scars run deep. Deep enough to prompt a seemingly respectable newspaper to title: Who Was to Blame for the First World War? Are you in earnest, sir? Or, as an American would say, seriously?